I got into a debate with some nitwit at the YMCA today, and this reminded me of two things. First, for a number of reasons which will make a later post of their own, now is a terrible time for me to debate politics and scholastics (like there’s ever a good one). And second, there is such a fucking thing as white privilege. I don’t deceive myself. I grew up with an awareness of injustice, but simply because I was white, I know I didn’t feel the kind of prejudice growing up that a black child in the same circumstances would have. And there are so many white people who think otherwise that I don’t even know where to begin.
Yes, I do. I’ll start by giving you some context. First of all, if you’re reading this blog, you probably know my opinion of public schools. In case you don’t , let me summarize. They suck. There. But that said, it is, for the most part, the system I object to. The vast Vast VAST majority of the people I know teaching in the public schools are fighting the good fight, trying to achieve success against outrageous obstacles. Today, however, I was reminded that teachers can be part of the problem, too.
I was showering after my workout, and the three women on the other side of the locker room were talking about public education. Two of them were white and one was black. This is significant. The African-American woman has founded a social justice group made up of teens. She teaches seminars about things like nonviolence and health and hygiene. And from what I can tell, she does it RIGHT. She doesn’t hold lectures. She holds interactive meetings, where the participants are all involved. Her goal for the seminars is that these teens will each take the time to write to five people involved in the public school system, asking for a specific reform that they see being needed to improve their own educations. As far as I could tell, the classes are free, and she tried to cap them but couldn’t stand to turn willing participants away.
One of the white women had overheard her talking about this group with someone else, and she felt compelled to offer her opinions. The woman running the seminars was all ears. She asked what ideas the white woman had for who the students should write to, and what they might write about. “Bloated administration. All they do downtown is sit around and do nothing.” And this wasn’t a bad suggestion, as far as it went. But then, the second white woman chimed in.
Now, I was eavesdropping here. I’m a nosey bitch, and I don’t apologize for it. I feel just as compelled to insert myself into others’ conversations as these two did, and I was itching for an excuse to join this one. The second white woman said, “They should suggest more expulsions. If I could have just thrown out one kid at the beginning of the year, everything would have been fine. But instead I had to fill out form after form, so the school could document a student being on “intervention” without ever doing anything.”
She went on in that vein for some time, and after awhile it became clear that:
1) She had taught in the schools for seven years and had just quit.
2) She taught high school, though I never caught the subject.
3) She wasn’t referring to one particular problem student, but to any student who didn’t want to cooperate in the classroom. She felt that if she could expel one at the beginning of each year, the rest would fall in line.
4) She felt these students didn’t care because their welfare addict parents were teaching them not to.
By the time she got to point three, the African American lady had the sense to politely leave. She knew where the conversation was going, and she didn’t want to go there. She was on the ground working to enact practical change, and this teacher-type was exactly one of the people she wanted her students to be complaining about.
I got dressed while I eavesdropped, and just to be rude, I stole some deodorant from the first white woman, who jumped on the second one’s yes-man boat pretty fast. Hey, I forgot mine, it was right there, and I’d just heard her say three times that “Kids just don’t have any respect these days, and it’s because their parents don’t drill it into them.” I’m a parent of a couple of those these-days kids, and I figured if I wasn’t drilling it into my kids, it was doubtless because I had none either. I only put it on my pits, though I was tempted to do something nasty with it before I popped it back on the bench where she’d left it sitting.
The teacher-bitch was visibly pregnant, though extremely physically fit, and the first white woman was probably in her late fifties, and extremely fat. I tell you this just to give you a mental image to go by when I say that the first woman was staring pointedly at the teacher-type’s stomach every time she made her behavior announcement. She was doubtless thinking something like, This one, at least, I have a prayer of catching in time, before she falls into the permissive parenting trap. But the look in her eyes actually said I eat babies. When can you serve me yours?
Anyway, stealing the deodorant didn’t cheer me up any, and I was getting seriously pissed off at these two white-privilege-laden twats who were circling around and around racism without even realizing it. So I escalated things. When the former teacher said, “I just can’t understand why I was supposed to help these kids,” I jumped in. And let me pause here. She really said that, and she really said it that way. I made her repeat it. She didn’t say that she wasn’t sure “how” to help her students. She didn’t say she lacked resources. She said she couldn’t understand why that was her problem.
I said, “Well, who will help them?”
“Are you a teacher?” Instantly, she assumed that if I didn’t agree with her, I couldn’t possibly have ever walked into a classroom.
“No,” I told her. “I’m a parent. Of a special needs child. And I’m pretty sure you’d have wanted to throw out my daughter if she’d been in your classroom this year.”
“Surely not!” she exclaimed. Your daughter doesn’t live in the inner city, where I worked. “Surely your kid wouldn’t throw her book in the floor and curse and say she wouldn’t do the work.”
I had to allow that my daughter would not curse. And I resisted the urge to say that this failure to use a blue tongue was not for lack of trying on my part. Instead, I said, “But she did scream “NO” at her teacher while throwing things at least once or twice.”
“But she’s special needs. That’s different.”
“What’s to say the students in your classes aren’t special needs…”
“Weren’t. I don’t teach anymore, and you couldn’t get me to go back there.” Good. A few less kids fucked up for life.
But I went on “…how do you know they weren’t special needs?”
“Oh, special needs students were identified…”
“…what if they fell through the cracks? What if you had the opportunity to identify one kid’s need. I mean, I went to school with a guy that everybody assumed was dumb. He somehow got into college, and somebody realized he just needed glasses. He wasn’t stupid. He couldn’t see the board and thought that was normal.”
“Look, it wasn’t like that,” she protested. “It was like, I would have classrooms of thirty five students, and I would know if X was absent, I could teach thirty four of them, but if X showed up, I would have to spend all my energy making him or her participate and never teach any of them anything. So if I have to choose between thirty-four students getting an education and none getting an education, why shouldn’t I be able to choose to at least teach the ones who wanted to be there?”
“That had to be hard,” I said. Because it did. Teachers should not have these huge classes that make it impossible to meet individual students’ needs. I don’t blame her for that at all. I do blame her for acting like she didn’t expect it to be that way, and for not even being willing to try, it sounds like from the get-go. Come on. It was that bad when she and I were both in school, and it’s only gotten worse sense. I’d be willing to lay money she was oblivious to it then because she was too busy with her own social life.
I can’t remember quite what happened next, whether she said something else to piss me off, because I’d been ready to let it go at vaguely placating, or whether that “discretion is the better part of valor” attitude never got the upper hand and I just plowed on. Anyway, I wound up saying, “You know, in this town, it pretty much all boils down to racism.”
She rolled her eyes at me. She rolled her eyes at me.
“Seriously,” I said. “Socioeconomic status and race are inextricable in Montgomery.”
She looked like she’d swallowed a melon to go down on top of that baby. I didn’t know people’s throats could puff up like that when they weren’t in shock of some kind. I wondered if I should worry that the other white woman, who was watching me usurp the conversation in the most placid way possible, had activated her secret baby-eating powers while the teacher-type was distracted. But she was most probably just trying not to laugh at me. “Oh I think it’s mostly socio-economic status” she said. And from the way she said it, I could tell that the phrase ‘socio-economic status’ bugged her as much as race. “These were practically adults. They were nineteen years old, in the ninth grade, making a choice to come disrupt my classroom.”
And I don’t doubt that some were. But I also don’t doubt that the woman was on the defensive and engaging in hyperbole. “So what makes them make the choice to not care?” I asked her.
“Their parents are teaching them they can make a perfectly good living off of welfare.” That’s another attitude I abhor.
“Statistically speaking,” I said, “people on welfare are trying to get by. Yes, there are jerks who abuse the system, but I think their motivation probably went deeper than that. What made them poor to begin with?”
She admitted that they were probably born in poverty, following up quickly with, “but that could be anybody, black or white.”
“But how many of them were actually white?” I asked her. She didn’t say, but I’d guess it was few. “Racism,” I explained, “is engrained in Alabama’s constitution.”
She made a little “psh” sound under her breath, but I kept going.
“Seriously. The state constitution was last revised in 1901. It enshrines racism. It still uses the word N-E-G-R-O.” Yes, I spelled it. I curse like a demon, but I do not speak racial slurs, even when quoting. “Changing that would take a constitutional convention, and until it’s changed, it’s virtually impossible to discuss class without race.”
She didn’t believe me. She didn’t even disbelieve me enough to continue arguing. She said something noncommittal and pulled out (which, admittedly, I had been on the verge of doing a few sentences before). She taught in the Alabama schools, yet she clearly did not know the state was operating under a document composed by segregationists intent on preserving the Jim Crow laws that benefitted themselves. The other woman maybe disbelieved enough to Google it when she got home, but I’m doubtful.
I didn’t get a chance to explain about how Montgomery, in particular, is in such a nasty position. White flight to the suburbs here didn’t just mean white people pulling out to create new public school districts. When integration of neighborhoods and schools became a certainty during the Civil Rights movements, many white people in Montgomery picked up and went to the burbs, to found private schools, where their children wouldn’t have to integrate. The people left in the inner city were, by and large, black. And they were by and large, poor. So the inner city schools had no money, or very little.
As real change came, the private schools developed ethical codes that denounced racism. That meant that anybody who could afford it, black or white, put their kids in private school, because the public schools are so bad. But that still left the inner cities full of poor people who didn’t have any God-damned bootstraps to pull themselves up by. And that poor population was largely black because the people with the money had left specifically to get away from black people. And because there are so many private schools, they are cost competitive. I have my choice of places to send my kids to private school for under $8,000. So it’s middle class people sending their kids to private school here. One friend pointed out that if all the kids in private school suddenly tried to enroll in public schools, the public schools would be teaching classes in the coliseum because there isn’t enough space to accommodate many more kids in the public system. (I haven’t run the numbers on that, but she’s got a PhD and works in Education, so I’ll trust her.)
For that matter, people with any money at all in this city do not choose to live in the West End, because it’s a poverty stricken, dangerous area. And it’s also a largely black area. Those two things cannot be separated.
Not without groups like the one the African American woman has founded. Her group, teaching teens both how to live and care for themselves, and how to reach out to others, has a chance to make a real difference, and I’m sorry she left before I could find out more about it. It seems to me that she was the one with common sense. The other women couldn’t see how their attitudes would be part of the problem. They had their heads buried in a world of puritan values and outrageous attitudes where being beaten down and exhausted isn’t a real thing, where jobs grow on trees if you just look hard enough, and where inequality doesn’t exist. In their world simply-living-in-the-by-God-United-States should be enough to make a body leap out of bed, thank God, and Go To School to later Get a Decent Job. They and their apathy disgust me. Why should it be your problem indeed, you damned fool?
In case I’ve got you wondering, here are some links:
First, a link to the Alabama Legislature page discussing Alabama’s six constitutions and noting that we’re still operating under the 1901 version
Here is the law criminalizing miscegenation in 1901: (Note the N-E Word)
And here is the amendment overturning that law. It was passed in the year 2000. I found a couple of websites that I didn’t quite trust enough to link back to stating that the overturn only passed by a 59% margin.
But here’s a link to an article on Stateline discussing that overturn:
And… what? Oh OK OK – here’s the link to the article with the percentages showing that in 2000 Alabama only repealed its anti-miscegenation law by a 59% vote in the general election. It’s something on an English class’s page. But it does link back to an article on a <shudder> wiki, which links back to the actual votes behind the statistics. So I’m including both of THOSE links, too:
The article with the percentages: http://www.class.uidaho.edu/engl_258/Lecture%20Notes/american_antimiscegenation.htm
And the Actual voting numbers: http://alabamavotes.gov/downloads/election/2000/general/2000g-amend.pdf
This is a fun one! Section 182 of Alabama’s constitution, which appears to remain untouched (in spite of section 102’s overturn), lists miscegenation among the crimes that disqualify one from voting
Next, a link to Section 256 of the constitution, which establishes segregated schools. It uses the still entirely inappropriate phrase “colored”.
And here is a Washington Post article discussing the failure of a 2004 Amendment that would have removed the offensive language and stipulation about “segregation”. Yes, that’s right, people. Just seven years ago, given a chance, the majority of Alabama voters chose to do the wrong thing. Alabama schools are no longer formally segregated, but voters at large chose to pretend they still might be.
That’s probably about enough from me on the subject. I think I’ve made my point rather abundantly clear. I want to emphasize that this rant is not directed at those teachers who are on the front lines fighting to make a difference in the public schools, not just in Alabama, but in the nation. I do not judge you by this cunt. (Yes, I did just call her that. And yes, I did mean to imply that she is to be defined by the most gross depiction possible of her genitalia. I was very well behaved when speaking to her. You know me a little better and know I don’t hold back on the important descriptors.) By and large, it is the system that is flawed. Things happen to be particularly bad here, but I think Alabama is really just an example of a problem that exists around the nation.